Scholars Talk Writing: Carlo Rotella

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Image: Boston College

Carlo Rotella believes it serves academics well to write in different registers and for different readerships. And he practices that credo both when he writes and when he teaches.

For the Scholars Talk Writing series, we discussed a course he teaches at Boston College for graduate students and undergraduates called "Experimental Writing for Scholars."

As director of American studies at the college, he has written for mainstream publications like The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, The New Yorker, the Chicago Tribune, Slate, and Harper’s Magazine, among others. He’s also the author of Good With Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters From the Rust Belt; Cut Time: An Education at the Fights; and, most recently, Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories. A mutual friend says "Carlo uses book smarts to write about people with street smarts."

Tell me about the "Experimental Writing" course.

Rotella: We start from the premise that academic research and field knowledge doesn’t always have to lead to writing the usual scholarly articles and books. We try out other forms, mostly drawn from journalism and the essay: a magazine profile, newspaper op-ed, interview, explainer piece, personal essay, review essay, memoir, in-memoriam essay, interview, public lecture, and more. Our objective is to expand our ways to write about what we learn in the classroom, the library, and the archive; to try out unfamiliar kinds of writing and legwork; and to be a lot more purposeful about addressing audiences.

What are some of the habits of mind or writerly tics you encourage graduate students to overcome? And what new tricks do you teach them?

Rotella: You mean besides not beginning sentences with "Thus we see, under conditions of late capitalism, …"? Trying to sound formidable and intimidatingly brilliant would be one obvious trap to avoid. Another is mistaking abstraction for erudition.

When we workshop student drafts, we often end up talking about what could be turned into a scene — some kind of embodied action that allows the writer to show the reader what matters, rather than standing back at the usual thousand-yard distance and explaining things away in the abstract.

Making a priority of showing over telling can change your mechanics. In trade writing it’s more common to give a paragraph a narrative topic sentence, structure it as a story, and arrive at a kicker that draws a larger point from that story and signposts where we are in the developing argument. That’s a change for academics used to putting a paragraph’s main assertion into its topic sentence.

Changing your approach to writing can also lead to revising your research agenda. If you’re trying to write more scenes, you may have to go out and do more legwork — digging in archives, interviewing people, participant-observing, whatever it takes. It may be something as simple as figuring out what a particular street looked like on a particular day in 1918, and suddenly you find yourself checking century-old weather, getting into architectural and social history, and digging through City Planning archives.

Experimenting with new writing styles doesn’t just mean getting rid of writing tics. It can lead to a fresh conception of what you’re after and how to get it.

You have colleagues visit the class to talk about different forms. Can you tell us a bit about what students have heard from them?

Rotella: Some describe how they’re making a jump from scholarly forms to trade writing, like Eric Weiskott, a medievalist (and an associate professor of English at Boston College), who told us how he came to start writing explainer pieces like "Before ‘Fake News’ Came False Prophecy."

Jim Smith, whose research on the Magdalen Laundries helped start a church-state upheaval in Ireland, told us how he learned to deliver the essence of his own research across a wide range of genres — from scholarly collaborations to being interviewed on radio and TV.

You have to have deep command of your work and its consequences in order to get something substantive through the tight aperture afforded by a drive-time radio interview, which turns out to be excellent training for even the most specialized academic tasks, like the Q&A after a job talk.

These guest-speaker visits have value not only for their how-to aspects but also because students can see their teachers wrestling with questions of genre and audience, and with the problem of how to convey both command and humane attention to their subjects. We want those questions on the table, and it’s good to see that they remain open and alive throughout an academic writer’s career.

Are there scholarly journals that seem to be especially open to nonstandard academic writing? Or are you focused on teaching students to write for general-interest publications?

Rotella: There’s a range of possibilities, especially in the borderlands between academia and the trade press: literary quarterlies, reviews, outlets like The Conversation that are specifically intended for academics who want to try something different. I’ve recently come across a couple of formally inventive, original essays that were published in Rethinking History, a journal that is committed to encouraging experimentation.

And sometimes a scholarly journal will take a chance on something outside its usual purview, even if the only thing experimental about the piece is a more trade approach. Many years ago, when I was between academic jobs and feeling a need to spray my CV with pheromones of the sort that attract English departments, I sent to Critical Inquiry a magazine profile of a woman boxer I’d wanted to place in The Atlantic. All I did was add footnotes and take the analytical stepbacks between scenes a little deeper than usual.

And it works the other way, too. When I wrote a column for The Boston Globe, I’d regularly draw on my own research and showcase other scholars’ work. A column, like an op-ed, can serve as a handy vehicle for bringing research to readers and vice versa.

What can scholars do to improve their prose, even if they say they have no interest in reaching a wider readership?

Rotella: Scholarly writing is a subgenre of nonfiction writing; it’s a lot better when it’s edited well. Given the current conditions of academic writing, you have to be prepared to supply (or to get your unpaid friends to supply) your own editing to fill the large gap between referees’ reports, which tend to stick to the big picture, and the kind of line-edit-for-house-style that academic journals can usually provide.

Much of what I’ve learned about structure, proportion, tone, narrative and character, scenes, and "stepbacks" I’ve reverse-engineered from what magazine and trade-house editors did to my drafts. So even if your intent is to write for regular academic journals, it might be worthwhile to do some cross-training on the trade side.

What general writing principles do you think apply across all disciplines?

Rotella: Clarity is a cardinal virtue, obscurity one of our supervillains. There’s no idea so complicated that you can’t lay it out in clear, plain language. If you can’t, there’s something wrong with your command of the idea, or with the idea itself. Or, you’re falling into the classic academic-writer trap of being obscure because you’re afraid you won’t sound smart enough if you just say it so people can understand what you mean.

Another basic principle: Treat narrative and character as tools for making an argument, not as gimmicks to hook the reader. Telling stories about people provides one of the best ways to show how characters live the consequences of your argument. This is one sure way to build into the DNA of your writing an answer to the "So what?" question.

And you have to answer that question. Whether you’re writing a personal essay about your grandmother’s hands, making a technical argument about Smollett’s diction, or discussing lead in the water supply, there’s a crucial point where your parochial interests touch some larger set of interests. A lot of academic work buries or brushes past this point on the way to making its case-in-detail, and a lot of weak trade writing hammers on this point without bothering to make a case-in-detail at all. In the experimental writing class, we try to get better at identifying the "So what?" sweet spot and writing toward it.

What would you tell people in social-science or STEM fields who might think that these ideas don’t apply to them?

Rotella: Some of the best writing by scholars comes from those areas, and it’s often the work that devotes the most serious attention to explaining things clearly, answering the "So what?" question, and showing how people live the consequences of an argument.

I read a lot of sociology, which has a particularly strong tradition of argument via narrative and character. Think, for example, of Matthew Desmond’s 2017 book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a virtuoso example of telling stories about people to make a point.

What should scholars who want to write for more general readerships know?

Rotella: It comes as news to most academics in my end of the business — who have a touching faith in the rigor of the refereeing process — that they’ll find it much harder to get into even midlevel magazines than it is to get into leading academic journals.

Before you start down that road, though: What’s your objective? What readership are you addressing now? How does that shape your writing, and what about that do you want to change?

It turns out that what most academics mean by "a general readership" is fellow highly-educated people — really, people in other buildings on campus — and that’s fine. But before you make a writing stretch that entails choosing to submit to a new set of market and craft conditions that can be every bit as maddening and constraining as those that obtain in academic writing, it’s worth thinking a little bit about what you hope to get out of all this.

What do you get out of it?

Rotella: I think most academics underrate the basic craft satisfactions of scholarship, teaching, and writing. There’s deep pleasure in working on your chops, and deep reward in being part of a community of inquiry with students who are working on theirs. Practice your scales, learn a new skill, try to get a little better at what you do — that’s all a lot more satisfying and useful than worrying about whether you sound brilliant enough.

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